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by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

"Kenneth Anger
composite," 1953.

“Davenport, Iowa, composite
with Shirley Berman &
Male Nude, L.A.," 1977

“Frances Montrose/Mono
Lake composite," 1976.

“The Three Children of
Mr. & Mrs. F. Montrose/
Mono Lake composite," 1976.
(Stephen Cohen Gallery, West Hollywood) If you really love exquisite art, especially photography, then do not miss this Edmund Teske exhibition. It has been a long time between exhibitions of his work, the last being in 1993 at the J. Paul Getty Museum. So many of you may not be familiar with the late artist’s extraordinary hand-crafted photographs. The show contains a range of images, from his early documentary work echoing Walker Evans and Eugene Atget, to his stunning "unique" works recalling surrealism and the influence of Man Ray.

Teske is a part of the rich cultural heritage of Southern California and sadly, one that is often overlooked. Born in Chicago, he moved to Hollywood in 1943 with dreams of becoming an actor. However, his training was as a photographer, so he found work in the photographic department at Paramount. No stranger to the art world, he had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at the Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930's and knew photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Bernice Abbot, Paul Strand, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. All of these artists would have an impact on his art.

The artist's life and work are woven into the myth and fabric of Hollywood. Not only was he to live in Studio B until it was destroyed, as well as on Aline Barnsdall's property (which had been designed by Wright), but he mingled with artists and entertainers. His images incorporate figures as diverse as Kenneth Anger, Christopher Isherwood, Will Geer, and Jim Morrison. Blended into these complex montaged images are the abundant foliage of the Southland, from Topanga Canyon to Barnsdall's gardens. The lushness of the vegetation combined with the richness of the image surface obtained though duotone printing and solorization creates a feeling of overpowering sensuality. Many of the images also include male nudes that charge the photographs with sexuality.

Teske also collaged images from classical painting into his photographs, giving the work an edge and often offering biting commentary; others, lush with imagery like Hindu deities, remained indecipherable surrealist dreams. The collage, long a favorite of painters, is played with a virtuoso skill, especially when supported by his printing techniques.

What makes his work so appealing is not just that the images are so visually strong and captivating, but his technical skills in the lab are extraordinary. The combination is breathtaking. No reproductions in books can reveal the subtlety and complex blending of tones that make up his photographs. Like the Pictorialists who preceded him, his work is that of an artisan--each image is hand-crafted and unique.

A montage of Jim Morrison shows his band, the Doors, gathered around him and is juxtaposed with a Last Supper by El Greco above: Each leader is surrounded by his disciples. There are a number of different variations of the numerous portraits of the singer, including a duotone and solorized version as well as positive and negative images. These are fascinating visions of the singer/composer who still captivates young and old, decades after his death.

Teske's solorized photograph of calla lilies is breathtaking. Harkening back to another era with its smoky, atmospheric quality, the image looks more like a tonalist painting than a photograph. The surface of the image resembles painted metal rather than a photographic print. The artist is able to bring out the softest whites in the petals of flowers which are surrounded by a sea of browns. At a quick glance, it almost looks abstract. It is a mesmerizing work of art that is difficult to turn away from and almost impossible to forget.

This show presents a wide range of work, stretching from early street work to the complicated manipulated images of his mature period. It convincingly places Teske's images in the forefront of the artistic legacy of our region.